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Robert BEASER (b.1954)
Chorale Variations (1992) [20.25]
The Seven Deadly Sins (1984) [22.07]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1990) [34.05]
Jan Opalach (bass-baritone)
Pamela Mia Paul (piano)
American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, 1992. DDD
originally released on the Argo label for Decca in 1994
PHOENIX PHCD 162 [77.10]

 

As a reviewer, and as a musician I have to be open-minded and attempt to be sympathetic to all music. Normally my way of solving this is that when a new release plops through the letter box the first thing I do is to play a track or two and then read the booklet notes. However with this disc I read the opening of the notes by Steven Ledbetter first. I’m afraid was immediately discouraged. “During the two decades following the end of the second world war, American composers discovered and embraced Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques ...”. Then follows a description of how listeners, from that point, lost contact with composers. Now I don’t deny that this happened “much new music” he goes on, “was composed for increasingly small audiences of academic specialists”. A picture is painted for us of how the history of music has been saved  by the employment of “tonal elements through the quotation of older compositions”.   A little further on we are given a substantial quote from Robert Beaser on how he suddenly had a Damascus Road conversion “sitting under a fig tree” (would you believe it) in which he realized that he had to find a “middle road”.

Well I’m sorry but all this immediately put me right off. Am I a cynic or is this ‘populist-speak’ for: I couldn’t get an audience for my early experimental music so I decided to write music with old fashioned tunes and harmony? So I listened and tried to forget what I had read.

My first thought was ‘what a superb orchestrater’. His virtuosity is quite breath-taking. Then I realized that I couldn’t find much else. I heard the opening work, the Chorale Variations, twice on consecutive evenings. A few hours later I could not remember anything about it except its form: ending with the Chorale, its brashness and a certain emphasis on energy and rhythm. Indeed various other composers passed across the horizon: Leonard Bernstein, a touch of Copland and even Gershwin, a composer strongly evoked in the Piano Concerto. Try as I might I could only find surface excitement and an interest which soon evaporated.

Frustrated with myself I moved to the large-scale Piano Concerto. This is a three-movement piece with a set of variations as a slow movement,. It started promisingly with a slow introduction to a large-scale first movement. Before long it was ‘in yer face’ as the variations develop and it continues in much the same vein. I most enjoyed the middle movement with its opening contrasts of a string chorale followed by writing for glockenspiels. The piano’s first and subsequent entries were almost Brahmsian yet the spirit of Samuel Barber hovers over the composer’s shoulder and a powerful climax, which seems oddly out of place is achieved. Pamela Mia Paul is in total command of the often demanding solo part and the balance between her and orchestra is ideal.

The Seven Deadly Sins is a setting of a fascinating poem by Anthony Hecht. This was discovered by the composer after Hecht won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with a collection ‘The Hard Hours’. Aphoristic lines offer the composer many opportunities for colour and expression. I was first disappointed that with each ‘sin’ being short Beaser didn’t somehow connect or draw the sections together either physically or musically. Secondly I was disappointed that the song-cycle as I thought it would be, was no more than an orchestral work with text - the vocal writing being unmemorable and mostly unlyrical and not adhering to any deeper meaning of the words. The music is lacking in strong characterization between ‘sins’. Wrath, Sloth, Avarice etc were not as musically differentiated as one might have expected or wanted. The orchestral writing again however is mostly quite brilliant.

So there it is. I realize that there is a strong market for music like this and quite often with composers like Richard Danielpour or Corigliano I am a part of it, but I have to confess to my failure with Robert Beaser.

I make no adverse criticism of any of the performances. They seem immaculate and superbly well prepared. Jan Opalach has a fine resonant bass-baritone and clear diction and sings the cycle with passion and understanding. The recording is resonant but detailed and allows the music to speak naturally and with a full bloom.

Steven Ledbetter’s notes on the music are useful as is the biography and photograph. There are also notes on the orchestra and performers.

Gary Higginson

 

 



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